Okinawan-born Veteran Played Critical Role in Victory over Japan in WWII

Seiyu “Frank” Higashi was born in Los Angeles, Calif., in August 1918 to Japanese immigrants from the island prefecture of Okinawa. As such, he lived through two world wars — narrowly escaping the first, but destined to play a pivotal role in the second.

Higashi and his family returned to Okinawa shortly after he was born, and he grew up in a tiny village known as Nago. At 18, he came back to the United States to finish high school in Los Angeles.

He would not see his family again for eight years — until he returned to Okinawa again, this time as an invading soldier and liberator.

Higashi enlisted in the United States Army a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a second-generation Japanese-American, he was one of the “Nisei” soldiers, courageous service members who were despised by Japanese forces and endured prejudice and suspicion from their own American countrymen to become among the most decorated heroes of the war.

Higashi received special training at Fort Snelling, where he graduated at the top of his class, for a mission that was critical to the military’s planned invasion of Okinawa.

Okinawa, a 66-mile-long, narrow strip of subtropical jungles and beaches, is the smallest and least populated of the five main islands of Japan, but was a linchpin of the United States’ strategy to defeat the Imperial Army.

Thanks to his childhood growing up on the island, Higashi had learned the Okinawa dialect, which is not standard Japanese. As such, he was attached as an interpreter for a 10-member unit of the Military Intelligence Service during the three-month Battle of Okinawa.

The campaign was brief but bloody. Nearly 100,000 Imperial Japanese troops and 150,000 Okinawans (about half of the island’s pre-war population) died or committed suicide during the fighting — numbers that shocked American military strategists and were probably inflated by the Japanese people’s reluctance to surrender under any circumstances.

Military historians give much credit to the efforts of Nisei linguists, including the Military Intelligence Service, in sweeping caves, intercepting and translating documents written in Japanese and communicating with the local Okinawan people to help bring the battle to a quicker end.

“The Nisei shortened the Pacific War by two years and saved possibly a million American lives,” Major General Charles Willoughby later said.

The day before the fighting officially ended on June 22, 1945, Higashi managed to track down his aging father in Nago. A photo of the pair taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps was sent back to the home front and published in dozens of newspapers across the country.

After the war, Higashi and his wife settled in southern California, later relocating to Sunnyvale. He raised four children while he worked as a gardener.

In the mid-1990s, Higashi found himself fighting an altogether different but no less formidable battle, this time in the form of prostate cancer. Surviving that, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006, and he beat that, too.

Higashi and his fellow members of the Military Intelligence Service, along with other WWII-era Nisei units, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011.

He eventually moved to the Canby area to be near one of his daughters, Irene Breshears, who with her husband, Mike, was instrumental in the creation of the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Memorial in Canby. He joined the Canby/Aurora VFW Post 6057 and was its oldest member.

Seiyu “Frank” Higashi died Nov. 15, 2020. He was 102.

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